LOS ANGELES, March 6, 2009 -- After more than two decades, and at least 11 murders, police are searching for a serial killer in Los Angeles.
They say several young black women and one man died at the killer's hands, beginning in 1985. The cluster of killings stopped in 1988, but then, 14 years later, police say they linked new murders to the same man, nicknamed the "Grim Sleeper." The most recent murder happened in 2007 and, because of DNA evidence, that's when LAPD realized a serial killer was on the loose.
A handful of detectives are now working full time on the case and the LAPD is offering a $500,000 reward -- the city's biggest ever -- advertised on billboards near where the victims were found. Investigators also released a 20-year-old 911 call last month in which a witness says he saw a van pull up in a dark alley and dump a body, which was identified as Barbara Ware.
The caller tells the dispatcher, "Yes, I'd like to report uh, uh murder or a dead body or something."
He gave several details, everything from the license plate number of the van -- which was a dead-end lead -- to the way the body was discarded. But he refused to tell the 911 operator his name, saying he didn't see the killer.
LAPD Detective Bill Fallon is following up on the 20-year-old call like it was yesterday.
Among the questions that remain: Is the caller a witness or the killer himself? And why the 14-year break in the killings? Was the killer in prison, living elsewhere? Or did he just stop for a while?
"I believe it's a young man that's very angry with women," Fallon said. "Some woman, I believe, somewhere has hurt him down the line, and he's taken it out on the women."
Fallon and the rest of the Grim Sleeper task force, headed by Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, hope to find the Grim Sleeper before he wakes to kill again.
Kilcoyne said almost all of the victims were women.
"We have 12 individuals, starting in 1985," Kilcoyne said. "Our third victim, Thomas Steele, was the only male involved in this." Eleven people have died so far, and there was one confirmed attempt and near killing, all in the same area.
A Human Dumping Ground
It all began in 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, "Back to the Future" was the hottest thing on the big screen and a new drug called crack was beginning to transform the streets of Los Angeles.
It was a busy year to be a cop in Los Angeles. The streets were like killing fields, with a murder rate of nearly 800 per year.
It was in this environment, among the chaos and drug, that a serial killer began his work.
Fallon took "Nightline" on a tour of an alley that has become a human dumping ground. He brought his partner along to act as a security presence in the dangerous gangland.
"A transient was walking down this alley looking for cans and bottles and he started digging in that Dumpster and he saw our victim," Fallon said. "Right here, right where the chain is hanging on the gate."
'Broken People and Easy Targets'
At police headquarters, Kilcoyne shared old binders, what he calls the "murder books," filled with crime-scene photos, tire tracks and other old evidence like scraps of paper.
"The commonality is that they're all from the same general area of the city in south Los Angeles," Kilcoyne said. "I don't think I would label them all as prostitutes per se, but they certainly have troubled lifestyles. They're broken people and easy targets."
The killings took place in a cluster around the same South Los Angeles neighborhood, all of them matched to the same 25-caliber handgun, and all of them matched to the same DNA, usually saliva taken from the victims' breasts.
Most of the murders occurred before 1990. Then, after a 14-year break, the Grim Sleeper awoke to kill again in 2002, 2003 and 2007. LA Weekly coined the term the Grim Sleeper because of the long lull in the killings.
Reporter Discovers Serial Killer, Alerts Community
Police say they wouldn't have known there was a serial killer on the loose if he hadn't starting killing again.
"We became aware of it right around April of 2007," Fallon said. "And we realized there was a serial killer because of DNA hits we started getting. So when we get those hits, we're like, 'whoa.' That's when we started digging it."
But the police didn't notify the community until Christine Pelisek, a reporter from LA Weekly, began investigating.
"I was the one who told some of the family members that their daughters were victims of a serial killer," Pelisek said. "I mean, they didn't even know. The public safety committee, they had no idea. I mean, the police commission, I spoke to the police commission [to whom the police chief reports]. They didn't even know. So there were a lot of people very upset that the police didn't let the community know."
Fallon says investigators didn't want to alert the killer that they were searching for him.
"We wanted to get a a step ahead of the killer himself," he said. "I don't want you to know I'm coming for you until I find out who you are, where you are and what you are doing."
The Los Angeles Times picked up the story and raised the question that was rumbling through the community: If the victims were well-to-do white women, would police have kept mum so long?
Diana Ware, the stepmother of 1987 murder victim Barbara Ware, said, "If it was in Hollywood or someplace, it would have been handled much differently."
She had no idea her daughter was the victim of a serial killer until she was blindsided by the story that the LA Weekly dug up.
"I think they would have told people it would have been out there in the public," she said. "It wasn't done and I think that was a big mistake. It was quite a shock when that came out. And to know how many people."
The LAPD vehemently denies that communication would have been different if the murders were in a more affluent part of town.
LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, who has taken the brunt of the public's criticism, said, "We value every life."
"There are always those that will be critical of when we choose to go forward with the information that we go forward with; that goes with the territory," he said. "I'm comfortable that this department is doing all it can to solve this case."
You may also e-mail detectives directly at RHD800TF@lapd.lacity.org, or you can text your tip to "CRIMES." Type "LAPD" and your tip in the message.